No, not the one which I had to take in college (to fulfill general education requirements), the prospect of a whole semester of it causing my toes to curl inward because my brain just dreads processing anything scientific or mathematical.
I’m speaking of another kind of chemistry. Yes, the sparkly, electrifying kind. Where the air between two people is so charged it short-circuits everything within a one-mile radius. I mean that as a hyperbole, of course, but try being objective when the sparks are bouncing off the walls and searing your eyeballs.
So, let’s talk about this thing called chemistry. We recognize it when we see it; we gripe when it fizzles rather than sizzles. But what exactly is on-screen chemistry (besides “sparks, what else?”) and how important is it in influencing our overall assessment of a drama or movie’s quality?
According to this BBC News article, on-screen chemistry isn’t as nebulous a concept as we sometimes imagine it to be. In fact, the Royal Society of Chemistry conducted a study on the best big-screen pairings (and all of a sudden I’m sitting up and thinking, “How cool of a research topic is that?”) and found that it was all a matter of getting the ingredients right. In short, on-screen chemistry is chemical in nature – the release of pheromones and other hormones.
In lay language, as Stephanie Charters, a psychiatrist at King’s College, London, explains, it is that potent and scintillating cocktail of “voice, eye contact, body language and excitement” creating this thing called “vibe” which scientists use to measure sexual attraction and chemistry. On-screen couples who give off this certain “vibe” make us cheer and cry and also “create unrealistic expectations of relationships,” says Jessica Fritz in her article on best on-screen chemistry.
How true that bit about unrealistic expectations. Think of the dramas and movies where we loved a couple so much we wanted the reel romance to blossom in real life, babies and grandbabies part of the happy long-term equation. How crushed we felt when one-half of the couple went on to marry someone else or to make another drama or movie where the chemistry was even more explosive, the audacity!
Two other findings from that Royal Society of Chemistry research jumped out at me. First, that in “almost all good pairs one person possessed qualities the other lacked.” Second, “two good actors doing their job” may not produce any kind of palpable on-screen chemistry.
Let’s mull over that awhile, shall we? For starters, let’s ponder the “our relationship sizzles because I possess what you lack and vice versa” notion. In other words, opposites attract. He’s a chaebol heir; she’s struggling to pay rent every month. He’s a hot architect; she’s as frumpy as your aunt. He’s exceedingly prickly; she’s a free-spirited bohemian. He comes to school escorted by ten bodyguards; she cycles alone, singing the whole way.
See how they clash. See how our eyes gleam watching them clash.
So many dramas and movies use the “a first encounter fraught with misunderstandings” trope to introduce the couple to us. It’s what gets us hooked because what’s a show without The Conflict? Does that mean, therefore, that the best chemistry comes from characters who are warring, who can’t stand the sight of each other at first (“she vomited on me, yuck!”) but who then proceed to fall headlong in love?
What about the ones who have always gotten along? The romantic pairing that shares more similar traits than opposing ones. Is that less compelling to watch?
Next, good acting alone isn’t going to cut it, as the findings suggest.
Does that mean that chemistry is something that can’t be faked? You either have chemistry or you don’t. Two actors may act their hearts out and leave us in awe, but our showers of praise omit the mention of chemistry between them because it was either non-existent or barely discernible. For example, I think of Jang Hyuk and Gong Hyo-jin in the 2007 drama, Thank You. Two wonderful actors with decidedly subdued chemistry. Choi Kang-hee, in a cameo role, had way more sparks with Jang Hyuk in the drama. They lit up in each other’s presence; they so obviously belonged together. I guess that is one of the main reasons why I could not root fully for our lead couple.
What about the shows where a lead character, usually female, has better chemistry with the second lead and I stupidly choose to root for this pairing even if it means I’m setting myself up for heartbreak? Or the dilemma when the female protagonist gets along like a barn on fire with BOTH suitors, leaving me cross-eyed and batty as I switch alliances every fifteen minutes?
All things considered, does it even matter? I look at my list of top ten dramas and movies and realize that in more than half of them, chemistry (of the conventional kind, between a man and a woman) did not figure among my reasons for falling in love with the show. Sometimes there’s no romance to speak of! Take my most beloved drama, Shin Don (2006). Son Chang-min, who plays the lead role, has the best chemistry with the following: an old monk, a young monk (Oh Man-seok)…
…and an absolutely stunning ungulate. ‘Twas love at first sight. (Between actor and animal, and between me and Ca Mel.)
So maybe chemistry is overrated. In the last few days I did a mental check of the dramas and movies I’ve watched and came away with the conclusion that chemistry has no bearing on how much I love or loathe a show.
For instance, I adore Ruler of Your Own World (2002) and adore its lead couple, Yang Dong-geun and Lee Na-young. But did they share an exceptional chemistry between them? I don’t think so; theirs was a quiet and understated relationship. He had more “chemistry” with the detective who was perpetually on his heels and with the fiery Mi-rae (Gong Hyo-jin) who could not believe she was losing her boyfriend to an indie rocker.
In the end I did not watch ROYOW repeatedly for the one true pairing; I watched for the honesty and humanity in the writing and characterization, and also for the fabulous soundtrack, among other things.
In fact, examples abound of dramas where I bailed early despite the couples fogging up the screen with their crackling chemistry, the sexual tension between them so thick wild horses can’t drag them apart. If the writing sucks, even kickass chemistry is not going to be able to salvage the show for me. But I’m peculiar that way, so don’t pelt me with the rotten tomatoes, dear fans of Mary Stay Out All Night. *ducks* Back in the ole days when I was still a wee thing in terms of kdrama-watching experience, I lapped up the likes of Winter Sonata and Mr. Duke because, oh, the sparks between the couple! I’m wiser now (and also snobbier, alas).
Speaking of Winter Sonata… Who does Choi Ji-woo have better chemistry with? Her Winter Sonata co-lead or the Beautiful Days one? Hahaha. Opening up a can of worms, I know. But seriously, as I was preparing for this post, I thought of certain popular actors who seem to hit it off with just about everyone. And then I drew up a list (in my head only since I do value my life), a pecking order of sorts with most chemistry on top and zilch chemistry below. Who has more, who has less, and with whom. Good stuff.
To wrap up this discussion, I’m going to toss out a few categories for you to ponder. Have fun drawing up your lists (five examples for each category).
Top 5 (drama or movie):
1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
3. Best chemistry with a second lead
4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”
5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
Or forget the lists and just jump in and join the chatter on chemistry. You know you wanna!